Breathless: A Thriller

Breathless: A Thriller

by Amy McCulloch
Breathless: A Thriller

Breathless: A Thriller

by Amy McCulloch


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AS SEEN ON THE TODAY SHOW A high-altitude thriller that will take your breath away—Cecily Wong is on her most dangerous climb yet, miles above sea level. But the elements are nothing compared to one chilling truth: There's a killer on the mountain.

"A vertigo-inducing page-turner by an author who brings the high-stakes world of expert mountain-climbing to life on the page." —Nita Prose, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Maid

Journalist Cecily Wong is in over her head. She’s come to Manaslu, the eighth-highest peak in the world, to interview internationally famous mountaineer Charles McVeigh on the last leg of a record-breaking series of summits. She’s given up everything for this story—her boyfriend, her life savings, the peace she’s made with her climbing failures in the past—but it’s a career-making opportunity. It could finally put her life back on track.

But when one climber dies in what everyone else assumes is a freak accident, she fears their expedition is in danger. And by the time a second climber dies, it’s too late to turn back. Stranded on a mountain in one of the most remote regions of the world, she’ll have to battle more than the elements in a harrowing fight for survival against a killer who is picking them off one by one.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593315491
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/03/2022
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 92,044
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

AMY McCULLOCH is the author of Breathless, as well as eight novels for children and young adults, including the internationally bestselling YA novel The Magpie Society: One for Sorrow. In 2019, she became the youngest Canadian woman to climb Manaslu in Nepal. She lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

In a cramped hotel room high above the prayer flag–strewn streets of Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, Nepal, Cecily snapped her laptop shut. The opening to her article wasn’t right, but getting something down early soothed her jangled nerves. Far easier to whip a weak lede into shape than face a blank page.

She used to think a blank page was her greatest fear. Now, thanks to Charles McVeigh, she was about to face something far more terrifying.

The death zone of the eighth-highest mountain in the world.

Her head pounded after her excursion to Tom & Jerry’s the night before. She hadn’t intended to drink much, but one of her new teammates—Zak, the American—had been buying, and a hangover seemed like a small price to pay for the bonding she’d done with him. She needed to be on her game for this expedition, yet already she was starting off-balance.

A sharp knock on her hotel-room door brought her to her feet. She opened it, allowing her expedition leader, Doug Manners, and head guide, Mingma Lakpa Sherpa, to enter. They’d met her at the airport the day before, Doug instantly recognizable by the shock of silver hair against his mountain-tanned skin. Yet today, his shoulders were hunched and he seemed tired . . . ​not like the bold pioneering mountain man, legend of the British alpinism world she had pictured. She’d read a lot about his accomplishments in the high peaks: five Everest summits, from both the south and north side, along with numerous first ascents on some of the lesser-known peaks in the Karakoram and in the Andes. He’d spent many years guiding for one the world’s premier high-altitude commercial expedition companies, Summit Extreme, before leaving to branch out on his own with Manners Mountaineering. He was known for his no-nonsense approach and his high regard for safety.

Mingma next to him was a slip of a man, and yet she knew he was a fifteen-time Everest summiteer. Cecily could barely wrap her head around the steel and bravery it would take to accomplish such a feat.

“All set?” Doug asked.

“I think so.” She flipped to the gear list printed and glued into the front of her notebook, and allowed them in to inspect the gear laid out neatly on the double bed. She’d already checked it a dozen times that morning, carefully marking off every item she’d been asked to bring. Nothing forgotten. Nothing left behind.

This time, on this mountain, she was determined to be prepared.

“Feeling all right this morning?” asked Mingma, a twinkle in his eye. He’d helped her make her way back to the hotel last night, providing directions to the Nepali taxi driver.

“Yes, fine!” She forced a grin, and he patted her on the arm, not pressing further.

She watched as Doug cast a critical eye over her gear. He lifted a piece of footwear, inspecting the sole. It was one of her enormous triple-layer, eight-thousand-meter-ready boots, wrapped in wasp-yellow gaiters that came up to her knees. Hers were pristine, unworn. They would be critical in protecting her toes from frostbite in the extreme cold, but hers were so big, she’d had to layer the inside with extra insoles. Almost all the high-altitude mountaineering gear—summit suits and boots—was made for male bodies. She had to adapt it all to fit.

“Thank you both again for having me on this expedition,” she said. “It must be strange having clients with you—I know you’ve been supporting Charles alone on his mission so far.”

“It is our pleasure,” said Mingma, his sparse mustache tickling the underside of his nose as he smiled. His warmth was a stark contrast to Doug’s grunts. Doug’s frown deepened as he moved on from her boots to inspect her orange-handled ice ax and harness.

“I hope that one is OK,” she said. “I googled the best harnesses for mountaineering and it had good reviews.”

“It’ll do. One that clips a round the legs would have been better.”

Her cheeks reddened. “Oh. I didn’t know.”

“You should have asked—Google’s not going to save you at eight thousand meters.” Doug placed the harness back onto the bed, careful not to tangle the loops. “Normally when I run an expedition, I only take climbers with the right experience. You never know when a mountain will turn on you. It’s not just your own life you put at risk up there.”

“My last summit attempt taught me that,” she said, suppressing a shudder. “I actually wrote something about it online. I don’t know if you saw . . .”

Doug looked blank. “I don’t really keep up with the internet.”

“Oh, of course you don’t. I only thought you might’ve seen it because Charles says it’s the reason he invited me on the expedition . . .” She was embarrassed to have brought it up, but pleased at the same time. At least one person on the trip hadn’t read her now-infamous viral blog post “Failure to Rise”—all about her total inability to reach the summit of the mountains she attempted. Once Zak had realized who she was, he’d insisted on buying another round of shots.

“Looks like everything is in order here. I need to check on the others,” said Doug. “When you’ve packed up, leave your duffels in the room and Mingma will bring them down. Meet in the lobby at eleven hundred sharp, then we’ll head to the airport.”

Cecily straightened. “Got it.” She surveyed the vast amount of gear to pack up. This was her life savings. Everything she owned was on this bed. She caught Mingma’s eye. “Do you think I’ve brought too much?”

Mingma laughed. “You should see Mr. Zak’s list. I think he is bringing a photo album of his children to the summit. What are you taking to the top?”

She chewed on her bottom lip. “To be honest, I haven’t thought that far . . .”

“You haven’t?” He blinked, taken aback. “They sell flags all over in Thamel. Why don’t you see if you can get one? You have a bit of time.”

“Really? Great idea. Thanks, Mingma. I’ll go once I’ve finished here.”

He bowed his head, before following Doug out of the room. Cecily folded her clothes into packing cubes, stacked them inside the duffel bag, and checked each item off her list again.

“Summit flag” wasn’t on it. Of course she should have something to take to the top, to hold up in a photograph. Why hadn’t she thought about it before?

As she made her way out onto the bustling streets, the answer was obvious.

Because you don’t think you’re going to make it.

Chapter 2

Pocket-sized Union Jack secured, Cecily made her way back to the guesthouse. The moment the doors slid open, she found a phone thrust in her face. “And look, here’s one of my teammates now!” exclaimed Zak.

She’d googled him as soon as she’d returned to the hotel after the bar and discovered that he was the CEO of TalkForward, some kind of high-tech communications firm based in Petaluma, California.

“Say hi, Celia!”

“It’s Cecily,” she said, raising a hand to wave at a gaggle of blond, beaming kids on the wide screen of his phone.

Zak threw his arm over her shoulder, pulling her close so they were both visible in the frame. “Still suffering from jet-lag brain over here. Kids, this is Cecily! She’s a world-class journalist writing a story on Charles.”

She winced at the description of her job title—hardly accurate—but she didn’t correct him, and Zak didn’t seem to notice her discomfort.

“The mountain man!” shouted the youngest boy.

“That’s right, buddy, our hero of the Himalayas. OK, guys, love you so much, but I gotta run. The mountains are waiting for me!” He ended the call and exhaled loudly. “Strange to think that might be the last time I talk to them like that for a while. You called any family yet?”

“I think they want to hear from me when I’m back and safe, to be honest.”

“I hear ya. Oh, look who’s just arrived!” Zak pointed over her shoulder at the lift doors. “Isn’t that Charles?”

Cecily turned to look and felt a fluttering deep in her belly. “That’s him.”

Of course it wasn’t hard to spot Charles McVeigh in any room. But even here, in a hotel packed with climbers about to embark on their expeditions, he stood out. He was muscular and tall—unlike most mountaineers, who were rangy. He wore a sky-blue puffer jacket, with the TalkForward logo emblazoned on the arm, along with his initials—CM, with the M a stylized mountain range—embroidered over the breast and on his baseball cap.

Beside her, Zak drew himself up to his full height—which wouldn’t even bring him to Charles’s shoulder. Still, she understood the impulse to impress. In the world of mountaineering, Charles McVeigh was already famous. Soon he would be legendary. He was on the brink of becoming the first person to complete an unprecedented, near-impossible feat: climbing the only fourteen mountains in the world that stood taller than eight thousand meters without using supplementary oxygen, alpine style—and all within a single year.

He called it Mission: Fourteen Clean.

Most mountaineers—like Cecily, Zak and the rest of the team—climbed expedition, or “siege,” style. Their way meant using every advantage possible—porters, fixed lines, ladders, dining tents, oxygen tanks, an intense acclimatization routine, one-on-one climbing Sherpa attention—to get up the mountain and down safely. His way shed all that support. Climbing in its purest form.

Charles was the whole reason she was there, in Kathmandu. He’d promised her an exclusive interview once his mission was complete. The article would easily be the biggest story she’d ever written. A career-defining piece.

Seeing him, she fumbled in her daypack for her notepad and pen. She thought back to her editor Michelle’s rush of excitement when she told her she’d scored the interview. It would be a huge boon for Wild Outdoors magazine to run an exclusive with the world’s most famous mountaineer.

Then Michelle had seemed to have second thoughts.

“Do you actually think you can do this?” she had asked. Cecily was sure her editor was thinking she would’ve much rather had someone like James, Cecily’s then-boyfriend and a renowned adventure travel journalist, writing the story. Instead Cecily—the person who was best known for not summiting mountains—had been commissioned, and Charles had tacked on a significant condition.

She had to reach the top of Manaslu with him first.

No wonder Michelle had her doubts.

“I’ll try my best,” she had replied.

Michelle sighed. “Trying is good but . . . ​look. I’ve spoken with the team here. We want the article, but we can’t pay you until you deliver.”

The news was a gut punch. “Are you serious? Then there’s no way I can afford it. I need to pay for the flights, the training, not to mention all the gear and the expedition costs.” There was more, but Cecily was wary of sounding too desperate, wanting to maintain some semblance of professionalism.

“I can maybe get you travel and a bit extra if you provide expedition reports. But the rest . . . ​I’m sorry, Cecily. You’ll have to figure that out on your own.”

“You covered all James’s costs to Antarctica! And this interview will be much, much bigger than that piece. You said yourself it’s the profile of a lifetime.”

“James is one of our top journalists. He’s a proven entity. Whereas you . . .”

“Whereas I’m not.”

There was an awkward pause, as Michelle didn’t rush to correct her. Cecily’s mind was in overdrive. She needed the interview to launch her career. But it sounded like she was going to have to put everything on the line to make it happen. “But if I do it?”

“If you do it, we’ll pay. And you’ll get more commissions. Trust me, the more women of color I can get on my staff, the better. Honestly—get this right, and I believe it would mean more than just an article for Wild Outdoors. It’s a book deal. A movie. This is the break that could define your career. They don’t come along often.”

Cecily’s breathing returned to normal. It was good to know Michelle would be rooting for her, even if it was because her white-passing face accompanied by her Chinese father’s surname made her the most readily accepted version of diversity.

Still, her editor’s words rang in her ears. Not just because of the opportunity. But because of the unspoken flip side. The fact that if she messed it up, her career as an adventure travel journalist was over. She’d be back at square one, competing for pieces that barely paid enough to cover her groceries. If she couldn’t do this, it would be more than just a failure to summit.

She would fail at yet another career.

She would fail to get a deposit together to rent her own place.

“Failure to Rise” would turn into failure to live at all.

Charles strolled over to a collection of leather armchairs in the lobby. “Come on, let’s go say hi before he’s mobbed by fans.” Zak started walking over before he had even finished his sentence. Cecily lingered behind, still searching for her pen. Seeing Charles in the flesh for the first time in months brought home what she was about to attempt.

Her first eight-thousand-meter peak. One of the highest summits in the world.

One of the most deadly.

She shook off the grip of fear that had started to take hold, and followed in Zak’s wake.

“It is so great to be here, man.” Zak shook Charles’s hand with vigor. He seemed starstruck. “I’m honored to be on the team, really.”

Charles put his hand over his heart. “The honor is all mine. Please, sit. Cecily, it’s good to see you again.”

“You too. Hard to believe this is finally happening.” She held up her notebook. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions while we wait for our flight?”

He laughed. “Trying to get an interview in, are you? That isn’t what we agreed . . .”

She attempted a winning smile, hoping to change his mind. “I thought since we’re technically not on the mountain yet, a few pre-trip questions might be allowed?”

He shook his head, unmoved. “Put the notebook away. I brought you here to experience real expedition life.” He leaned in, lowering his voice and raising his eyebrows. “Enjoy it.”

“Excuse me, Charles?”

An older woman, with a vaguely Germanic accent, approached them. Charles stood up and gave her a kiss on each cheek. “Vanja! How are you? Vanja, meet Zak Mitchell—he’s the CEO of TalkForward, a pioneering tech firm—and Cecily Wong—she’s the journalist I chose to accompany me to Manaslu. She’s going to climb it to get the whole picture. No interview until you summit, right, Cecily?”

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